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Pyongyang 'close' to restoring key nuclear facility

Text by NEWS WIRES

Latest update : 2009-10-06

North Korea's Yongbyon nuclear facility is almost operational, a South Korean official has told the Yonhap news agency. The allegation comes as Pyongyang announced it was ready to renew nuclear talks with the US and other powers.

REUTERS - North Korea is close to restoring its Yongbyon nuclear facility, South Korea’s Yonhap news agency on Tuesday quoted an official in Seoul as saying.

The report followed North Korea’s pledge to return to international nuclear disarmament talks as long as it first holds negotiations with the United States.

The following is a look at destitute North Korea’s decades-long pursuit of nuclear arms:

YONGBYON FACILITIES

The Yongbyon complex is at the heart of the North’s plutonium weapons programme. It consists of a five-megawatt reactor, whose construction began in 1980, a fuel fabrication facility and a plutonium reprocessing plant, where weapons-grade material is extracted from spent fuel rods.

Under an earlier agreement, North Korea began to close down the facility but this year announced that in the face of U.S.  hostility it would restore the plant.

The site, about 100 km (60 miles) north of Pyongyang, also contains a 50-megawatt reactor whose construction was suspended under a 1994 nuclear deal with the United States. That reactor is nowhere near completion.

When fully operational, Yongbyon can produce enough fissile material for one nuclear bomb a year, experts say.

NUCLEAR CAPABILITIES

U.S. officials said prior to the North’s May 25 second nuclear test it had produced about 50 kg (110 lb) of plutonium, which proliferation experts say would be enough for six to eight nuclear weapons. It could eventually extract enough material from spent fuel rods cooling at Yongbyon to make one more bomb.

NUCLEAR TESTING

North Korea’s first nuclear test in October 2006 produced a relatively low yield in its explosive force, indicating problems with the bomb design or plutonium at its core, experts say.

The May 25 test was stronger, but experts believe it may only be about one-fifth as powerful as the plutonium bomb the U.S. dropped on the Japanese city of Nagasaki in 1945 at the end of World War Two.

NUCLEAR WEAPONS

Even though it has exploded nuclear devices, North Korea has not shown that it has a working nuclear bomb.

Experts said they do not believe the North has the ability to miniaturise an atomic weapon to place on a missile, but the secretive state has been trying to develop such a warhead.

Even if it did, North Korea does not appear to have the technology to guide the missile to a target.

Its ageing fleet of Soviet-era bombers would have difficulty evading the technologically advanced air forces of regional powers the United States, South Korea and Japan to deliver a nuclear bomb outside the country. It has been testing ballistic missiles capable of reaching U.S. territory, but these have so far failed.

URANIUM ENRICHMENT

Last month, the North announced it was close to completing experimental enrichment of uranium, something the United States long suspected it was doing and giving it another path toward an atomic bomb.

The advantage for the North is that, unlike plutonium extraction from spent nuclear fuel, enrichment can much more easily be done away from the prying eyes of U.S. spy satellites. Also, the North can fuel it with its ample supplies of natural uranium.

“We have obtained indications that point to restoration work being in the final stages,” the unnamed South Korean government source was quoted by Yonhap as saying.

“The work to restore nuclear facilities at Yongbyon has been ongoing since early this year.”

North Korea argues that it is U.S. hostility, and the 28,000 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea, that is pushing it towards building a nuclear arsenal.

It has long sought a peace treaty with the United States to formally end the 1950-53 Korean War and full diplomatic relations, which would in turn give the impoverished state access to international financial aid.

North Korea had backed away from a deal to end its nuclear programme, but Kim said this week his country was willing to return to dialogue.

CHINA BOOST

The visit by the Chinese premier has been a major boost for Kim, increasingly isolated from the international community for nuclear and missile tests earlier this year and facing tougher sanctions. Analysts say the sanctions are damaging its weapons trade, one of the broken economy’s few major sources of income.

In an unwelcome reminder to the North of its pariah status, there have been fresh reports of detention of North Korean sea traffic, most recently in Indian and South Korean waters.

Analysts had said that Wen’s visit was unlikely to yield more than opaque promises from Pyongyang on the nuclear dispute.

“Through visits like this, North Korea is mostly trying to create the impression that other countries respect and heed it, that it’s a world power. Of course, that’s not true, but the impression helps its leader bolster his (Kim’s) authority,” said Zhang Liangui, an expert on North Korea at the Central Party School, an influential state institute in Beijing.

China is the nearest the hermit North can claim as a powerful ally and Wen’s visit was given widespread coverage by the tightly-controlled North Korean media.

A dinner hosted by Kim for his visitor, marking 60 years since the countries established formal ties, “proceeded in an amicable atmosphere overflowing with friendship from its beginning to its end,” KCNA reported.

Date created : 2009-10-06

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